How would you market this?

Five years ago, a desperately needed product was launched in Chennai – a water generator called Humidous. It works on the principle of absorbing the condensation from the atmosphere and delivers up to 26 litres of pristine water every day. Enough to meet all drinking and cooking needs of a small family. Chennai is a hot, humid city right round the year – with the ground water exploitation at over 85%. The water that flows in taps is brackish, salty and it leaves a fine white sediment on cooking vessels. Logically Humidous should be selling out as soon as they make the machines. Now comes the completely unbelievable part.

All those who can afford it buy drinking water cans. Bottled at some indeterminate location, under questionable hygiene and manufacturing standards, ‘mineral water’ is the product of choice. When the product was exhibited at the launch, the first reaction was disbelief. How could a product plugged into an electrical socket, with no water connection produce water? The first thing people looked for was a water pipe leading into the machine. Filtration is understood as a technology. Get muddy or salty water, run it through a membrane or a filtration system and you could get clean water. But if the source was the atmosphere, how could it work? Isn’t the atmosphere polluted? How can water extracted from it be clean, even if there was a four stage filtration process? The fact that drinking water now comes from far more polluted ground sources does not even register.

Even a product that addresses a clear defined need takes time to build a legion of believers. People who buy cans are quite happy to continue, since the monthly expense is small as opposed to a single investment upfront. In terms of benefits, having a machine that satisfies just one need – drinking water is not enough to overcome the inertia. Only if the can supplies dried up or became extremely expensive would people look for alternatives.

There was another problem. Since the manufacturer was taking a risk, he used existing moulds and adapted the design to suit what was readily available to keep the prices down. In spite of that, it costs as much as a refrigerator does and looks exactly like the water filters in the market – and that may have played a big role in its failure. Revolutionary technology needs to look revolutionary. And here the Humidous fails. No one would give it a second glance. Unless guests are told about the fact that it isn’t plugged into a water source, it never becomes a topic of conversation. Once they are told, they go from disinterest to awe. But the transition to a sale is another long story. The company has experimented with leaving the machine for a month at prospects’ homes but customers still don’t bite. The only place where the product is doing well is in the Andaman Islands, where fresh water is apparently a huge problem.

Simple equations in math are complex equations in human desires. The transition from need to want is a layered, start-stop process. Like Dyson, there are no fairy tales in marketing.